We continue today with our series of Torah Tuesdays including Lessons for Living by Moses our Mentor. This week we continue our investigation of Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18. Our considerations today are especially geared to Jewish people of whatever stripe, but others of you are likely to find this interesting as well. We will be looking first at God’s faithfulness ot us as a people, and then to our faithfulness to him. This is a long post. It will prove helpful to some, challenging to others, and annoying to many. Such is life. And such is truth!
“Good preaching focuses on who God is and what God does.”
I read this once in an article by Marianne Meye Thompson. Dr Thompson said that good preaching should have lots of sentences where God is the subject of good strong active verbs, sentences that say God creates, sustains, saves, rescues, sends, helps, heals, delivers, fills, enables, etc. Further, she said that good preaching must do this before it gets to discussing people and their responsibilities, joys, sorrows, and spiritually souped up agendas. She made the point that often, sermons are too much about us—our lives, our responsibilities, our joys and sorrows—and that God seems to be secondary, or hardly on the radar screen in too much preaching.
Of course, she is right. Although we have needs and responsibilities, addressing these must flow out of our encounter with who God is, and what he does, and because God is God, he always has first priority.
So, my friends, in looking at today’s text, let’s begin with God. What exactly does our text say that God does not just for people in general, and not for Jewish people in particular, but rather, let’s look especially at this question:
How Does God Demonstrate His Covenant Faithfulness to Israel?
God provides for us and sustains us in life – “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.” We were to bring these offerings because food comes from God—and it is God who gives us life and sustains us in it. This is why, even in urban Los Angeles, where Jews get their food from Vons, or Pavillions, or Ralph’s, or Gelson’s, or Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s, we still celebrate harvest festivals like Sukkot and Shavuot—to remind ourselves that it is God who provides for and sustains his people Israel in life. And that is why, at special occasions, we say this blessing: Blessed are you O lord who has kept us in life, and established us, and enables us to reach this season.” He is the one who provides for and sustains his people Israel in life.
God protects us.
20 I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. 21 Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; 22 but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. 23 When My angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I annihilate them, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices, but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits. . . . 27 I will send forth My terror before you, and I will throw into panic all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn tail before you. 28 I will send a plague ahead of you, and it shall drive out before you the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites.
When you come to think of it, Jewish religious life focuses a lot on this, doesn’t it. There’s Purim, where we celebrate His protecting us from that evil, wicked Haman. Then there’s Passover, when we celebrate his protecting us from Pharaoh. And there are other holidays like Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, when we mark how God enables us to have victory over our foes in the founding of the modern State, and the liberation of Jerusalem. Even at the very end of our service, the words following the Mourner’s Kaddish remind us “Be not afraid of the wicked nor of the storm that strikes the righteous. Lay your plan, it shall fail, form your plot, it shall not prevail, for God is with us.” God protects his people.
God accompanies us in our journey through history. The same verses we just read tell us that God not only protects us, but that this protection comes from the fact that he accompanies us. I like the way Isaiah reflects on this passage we just read: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isa 63:9).
God provides for our heath and well-being—our shalom. Not only does God sustain, and protect, and accompany his people: he also provides for our well-being—leading us into a life of shalom—of wellness and wholeness. Look how our text says it:
25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness from your midst. 26 No woman in your land shall miscarry or be barren. I will let you enjoy the full count of your days.
God reveals Himself to Israel not only in His word, but in His manifest Presence. This is what Paul refers to when he says, in Romans 9 – “to them belongs the glory”—that is, the Shekhinah, the manifestation of the Divine Presence. See, for example, 24:9-11, 15-18.
This is quite a list, isn’t it? God provides for us, sustains us in life, protects us, accompanies us, and maintains us in health and well-being, he comes to be among us. These are the things God promised he would do for Israel, and this is what he has been doing for us for thousands of years. This is what his covenant faithfulness looks like.
These provisions and promises only intensify with the coming of Messiah Yeshua—in Him God continues to provide for us, sustaining us in life, protecting us, accompanying us, maintaining us in health and well-being, so that not even death will separate us from the love of God which is in Messiah Yeshua.
How Should We Demonstrate Our Covenant Faithfulness to God?
Some people hold the following position, although it is seldom baldly articulated in these terms:
Thank God, He requires absolutely nothing of the Jewish people in return for his faithfulness to us. We can go on now and live as we please, live as comfortably as we want, as long as we pay some kind of lip service to the God who did so much for us. What we eat, how we pray, how we live with other people, how we respond to God’s commandments on a day to day basis, whether we go to synagogue for special occasions and keep shabbat in any manner, really depends upon what else is happening in our lives, and, after all, that’s really simply a matter of personal conscience, and it’s really nobody else’s business how we are doing and what we do or do not observe. The commandments can never tell us what we ought to do but only what we might do if that is our style and if we are going through a religious phase of some sort. The commandments are only for certain people—the very religious—and certain times—religious holidays and occasions and old age. Otherwise, we are free to live whatever kind of life we find meaningful as long as we avoid adultery, theft, and being outed on the six-o’clock news. After all, Yeshua paid it all, and said “It is finished,” and besides, we aren’t under the Law any more.
I wonder if you don’t find something very wrong with this sort of mentality. A while ago I asked the very good question as to whether Yeshua came so that Jews could eat cheeseburgers. Some people took issue with me on the example: they wanted to argue that “do not boil a kid in his mother’s milk” was not about the separation of meat and milk. O.K. Try this question then: Did Yeshua come so that the commandments of God to His people Israel would be reduced to the status of “Nice, if that’s your style?” Did Yeshua come to free Jews from the “burden” of living like Jews? If so, then the question is this: What kind of a Mashiach is this that makes goyim out of Jews? It’s a good question and devastating to the cause of Messiah when we are caught without ANY credible response that doesn’t sound the death knell for intergenerational Jewish identity.
I heard about a Messianic Jewish leader who ordered shrimp at an afternoon meal at a conference to demonstrate his “freedom” to do so. eating it with great gusto. Now, aside from the other arguments we could muster in this matter I want to ask you one question: Do you feel in your gut how unseemly this was for him to do? Do you not feel, as I do, that for a Messianic Jewish leader to eat pork or shrimp to make a theological point indicates a certain contempt for the ways of our ancestors and the heritage God gave us, ways for which our ancestors people suffered and died? Are you not uneasy and even outaged by this kind of contemptuous dismissal of such a way of life by someone who believes he has the theological right to do so? I don’t know about you, but this makes me very uneasy. To tell the truth, I am ashamed of such conduct, and it disgusts me. But more to the point, I think it is hard to justify from a right reading of Scripture and God’s ways with our people.
The blessings from God which we enumerated are covenant blessings—they are the benefits promised he promised and faithfully provided. But in that covenant, there are behaviors that are appropriate to us as well if we would honor our heritage, and honor God by keeping the covenant, and if we would expect God to continue honoring the covenant from His side.
If God is the subject of certain verbs—proclaiming, saving, sustaining, protecting, accompanying—then we too are the subjects of certain verbs—there are certain covenanted things—agreed upon things—which the Jewish people as a people are supposed to do in order to honor our covenant with Him. If there are verbs that apply to God, there are also verbs that apply to us. What are our categories of faithful response? I find seven.
First, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will increasingly live in conformity to his ethical guidelines. Chapters 21, 22 and the first eleven verses of 23 are almost entirely a collection of such stipulations, mitzvoth bein Adam l’chavero—commandments between a man and his fellow. This falls into the category of “gemilut hasadim”—deeds of covenant faithfulness—faithfulness to our covenant responsibility to God, and to others.
Second, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will increasingly honor God by appropriately observing and guarding shabbat. There is a fleeting reminder of that here, which is later ampliflied extensively. In this ontext we read this: Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed (23:12). Here it is a manifestation of ethical guidance, later it is a covenant requirement—the fourth of the ten commandments, in remembrance of creation and of the redemption from Egypt. Covenantally faithful Messianic Jews will not treat Shabbat like they do all the other days of the week.
Third, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will increasingly honor God by observing and guarding the Holy Days of our calendar (23:14-20a). These are not simply days off, or Jewish holidays—they are times to especially honor God. To let them slide or to be careless in following them is to forget our covenant responsibilities and our covenant relationship—these are not things we may do if we find it convenient to do so, but rather things we are supposed to do as people who know ourselves to be forever indebted to the Holy One.
Fourth, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will endeavor to eat like Jews should (23:20b). The phrase at the start of our reading, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” is just a part of the wider teachings in Torah about covenantal eating. The technical term is kashrut. Now I am not going to argue nor explain today what foods Jews should eat and not eat, and what it means to eat kosher. I strongly recommend the excellent treatment of this subject available from First Fruits of Zion, Biblically Kosher: A Messianic Jewish Persepctive on Kashrut. This book provides both a rationale and instruction clearing up all kinds of misconceptions on the subject. Truly excellent. And after reading that, I suggest you acquaint yourself with the guidelines provided by the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council, and found here at http://ourrabbis.org/main/halakhah-mainmenu-26/kashrut-mainmenu-34 But for now, what is crystal clear is this: Covenant-honoring Messianic Jews should eat like covenant-keeping Jews.
Fifth if we would be be faithful to God’s covenant we will increasingly participate in worshipful prayer to the God of our ancestors in company with the people of Israel. “Come up to the Lord, with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar” (24:1). Any of us who honor God must do so by worshipping Him in communal prayer with Israel. Just as all the sacrifices of Israel were seasoned with salt, so I believe that Messianic Jewish prayers in union with the prayers of all Israel are the salt on the sacrifice of israel’s offerings of prayer. Covenant-honoring Messianic Jews will be people who are growing in Jewish communal prayer. .
Sixth, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will constantly grow in lives of Torah knowledge and Torah obedience, for this is the guidance that God gave to the Jewish people as the way of life whereby we as a people might honor our covenant with Him. (See how this is stressed in 24:3, 7-8, 12).
Seventh and finally, if we would be faithful to God’s covenant we will recognize that these are covenant stipulations to which our people have already agreed and made themselves and us accountable.
Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:1-8 ESV)
It is unavoidable in Scripture that this is the life to which God called us and to which we pledged ourselves in gratitude to him. Toward the end of Torah, an entirely different generation is reminded not only that these responsibilities are theirs as well, but also, that these responsiblities devolve to all future generations of Israel. Read the paragraph below and pay special attention to the underlined material!
You are standing today all of you before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. (Deuteronomy 29:10-15 ESV)
All the commentators, both Jewish and Christian, recognize that the “whoever is not here with us today” is all the future generations of Israel. If we would be people who honor the God of the covenant and the covenant of God, then we must grow in these areas.
But What Does The Newer Testament Say About This?
Consider the following passage from the B’rith Chadasha:
Matt 21:28 “But give me your opinion: a man had two sons. He went to the first and said, `Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ 29 He answered, `I don’t want to’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, `I will, sir’; but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they replied. “That’s right!” Yeshua said to them. “I tell you that the tax-collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you! 32 ForYochanan came to you showing the path to righteousness, and you wouldn’t trust him. The tax-collectors and prostitutes trusted him; but you, even after you saw this, didn’t change your minds later and trust him.
We would do well to compare this parable with another Jewish parable, from our tradition.
When God sought to give the Torah, no nation other than Israel would accept it. What happened may be illustrated by the parable of a king who had a filed that he wished to turn over to tenants. When the king called the first of them and asked, “Will you accept care of this field?” he replied :I have no strength. Such work is too hard for me. “ AMd so, too, the second, the third, the fourth—not one would accept the care of the field. The king then called the fifth and asked him, “Will you accept the care of this field?” The man replied, “Yes.” “With the understanding that you will till it?” “Yes.” But when that tenant entered the field, he let it lie fallow. With whom is the king angry? With those who declared, “We cannot accept the care of it,” or with the one who accepted its care but, upon coming to the field, let it lie fallow? Is it not with the one who accepted the responsibility? Simlarly, when God revealed Himself on Sinai, there was not a nation at whose doors he had not knocked, but not one would accept it. But when He came to Israel, they exclaimed, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and obey” (Exod 24:7). Therefore it is proper that you all should obey” (Ex. Rabbah 27:9).
When we think about these parables side by side, we will see how Yeshua’s parable has a strong application to ourselves.
We are the people who said we would keep the covenant—that we would work the field—and then didn’t do it. At the end of his parable, Yeshua describes the pathway of repentance as changing our minds—I would suggest the pathway of repentance for the Messianic Jewish movement is for us to change our minds about the pathways of Torah. Like the figures in Yeshua’s parable, we, as part of the Jewish people, agreed to obey and then didn’t do it. I think the pathway of covenant faithfulness for us is to return to the pathways we left long ago, honoring the God of our Fathers and our Messiah by doing so.
I began quoting one preacher, let me close by quoting another: Martin Marty says this about preaching. “What is a sermon but a bidding of people to a way of life they would not otherwise have entertained?” That is what I have done today—I am bidding you, I am bidding me, I am bidding us to a way of life that we would not otherwise have entertained. More to the point, the Spirit of the Word and the example of our forbears is bidding us to this way of life. Will we listen? Will we say, “na’ase v’nishma—We will do it and will obey?”
Or is that shrimp cocktail just too much for you?